Writing Research: Delivering Your Introduction
July 9, 2014 09:00 AM
Style and format of research papers vary from subject to subject and journal to journal. While how you write your paper depends on the publication and reader you are addressing, the basic structure of the paper remains constant no matter the subject or discipline. While there are a variety of ways and methods to approaching and writing a research paper, the core elements remain the same.
Previously, we discussed writing a solid abstract to pull the reader into your work. The next critical step is a properly crafted introduction. Many readers and editors don’t get past this section, so this is where your best written work needs to be presented. It’s not uncommon that up to a quarter of the manuscript is taken up by the introduction. You’ll want to hit upon four points: motivation, results and strategy, current references and outline, and preliminaries.
The general idea is to start with a broad basis and narrow down to your particular field of study, explaining your reasoning behind each step. By the end of this section, you want the reader to understand the rationale behind your work, and why it is an essential component of research in the policy field. Often, this section is written last, after the rest of the paper is completed, so that no major points are missed.
Your introduction should start out with why the result mentioned in the abstract is interesting and important. This is considered your motivation for the paper; if the reader agrees with your perception of the research and the results, then your paper becomes more useful for them. Keep the language as down to earth as possible so as to not lose your audience.
The biggest portion of your introduction is on your results and strategy. Don’t fall into the trap of simply repeating your abstract here, and feel free to reference previous works that inspired and led up to your result. One way to communicate this is to tell a story that puts everything into perspective regarding recent literature and conveys how you succeeded where others may have failed. However, don’t reflect the actual historical progress of your research, which may be long and winding, but share how your thinking should have unfolded, using the benefit of hindsight. This isn’t the same as taking the shortest logical path; it involves a historical element with reference to works and ideas the reader may already be familiar with.
To provide context, provide a survey of the field of your research so far. Connect or reference all relevant works and players in the field. This does take knowledge of the literature available and a sense of the overall historical perspective. Be sure proper credit is given to those ideas mentioned that had an impact on your research. Your outline should follow, though preferably not as a list. State the goal and main achievement of each section; if you can weave them together into a form of narrative with logical progression, you’re more apt to keep the reader’s attention.
Finally, the preliminaries. This last section of your introduction is where you include technical remarks on notations to be used and basic references such as books for conventions. The goal is to make enough concise and clear references and explanations for how you are defining things and what conventions you are using. Find ways to state cut-and-dried definitions that the reader can use to refer back while reading the paper, but not through digressions or storytelling.
Keep in mind that here is also where you want to highlight any weaknesses in your study, as well as any assumptions made about the conditions. Forewarning the reader provides a sense of trust that will carry them through the rest of your paper, and gives them proper tools to judge the validity of your research.
Typically, information in this last section is assumed not to be your work, which an editor can delete if its information overload. This is the opposite than later sections, where you should not repeat well-known results or explain that they are included ‘for completeness.’ Remember, however, that you are not writing a thesis within this section, nor are you redoing the work of others. Clarity and conciseness is the key here, which sets up the next section: your research.
Just as important as the abstract, the introduction of your paper helps provide context and sets up the “why” of your research. Through this section, you reveal to the reader whether you are building on prior research, looking at something that others have overlooked, or improving on previous projects that delivered unclear results. You should show the reader how your research fills that gap, laying out your objectives and methodology, and possibly predicting what impact this research will have on future policy issues.